As I mentioned briefly in my post about selecting a name, I am not Mexican. I am, in fact, a pretty common specimen of white (aside from the 1/8 of my genetics that is identifiably Northern Cheyenne). I try to make no secret of the fact that I am an outsider to the greater cultural and historical context of lucha libre. I did not grow up going to the luchas or dreaming of becoming a famous luchadora. My family does not speak Spanish (1). I wasn’t even aware that lucha libre existed until high school Spanish class, and until I began training with Lucha Libre Volcánica my knowledge of the Spanish language was developed purely through several years of academic exposure.
At times my lack of connection to the culture behind lucha libre makes me question the legitimacy of taking on the title “luchadora,” let alone my ability to wrestle with a mask. I am a luchadora by definition insofar as I am a woman who trains and performs the sport of lucha libre, and “luchadora” is what you call such a person. But at best, my connection to the world of lucha libre is solidified through my continued participation in the sport , as well as my respect for and desire to experience and familiarize myself with lucha’s rich living history.
I am not so much preoccupied by my participation in the sport itself. Wrestling, professional or otherwise, exists in several different forms in various cultures. The pursuit of any sport for the sake of physical activity and personal entertainment is valid, regardless of the sport’s origins. However, given that lucha libre is in part realized as a public performance, I am concerned with the implications of adopting a Spanish ring name and donning a mask as a non-Mexican. As one of our newer (white) students so eloquently put it, “I [don’t] want to seem like the white guy barging in and saying ‘Hello! I’m here to appropriate your culture!’”
Masks have been used since the early days of lucha libre and have come to be nearly ubiquitous (2) in the sport. What’s more, traditions of masking have been significant throughout Mexico’s history, dating to the days of the ancient Aztecs. This is why, in my view, it becomes potentially problematic for others to wrestle enmascarado (masked).
Now, here’s what I generally mean by “others.” If you are unfamiliar with professional wrestling in the state of Washington, you are not missing much (other than lucha, of course). On account of various fees, requirements, and restrictions, the professional wrestling scene is neither vibrant nor thriving. While there are a handful of talented, competent American pro style wrestlers in the region, it is far easier to find “wrastlers” who use the name of sport as an excuse to sh*t-talk and beat each other silly in public. Normally, I just let them do their own thing and pay them little mind. However, some of the less-than-skilled have chosen to wear lucha masks and pass themselves off as “luchadors” as part of their gimmick or character. They are not trained as luchadores, and aside from perhaps slightly more jumping around than a standard American pro wrestler, their technique doesn’t remotely resemble actual lucha libre. As one who diligently trains in the sport of lucha libre, I feel their choice to wrestle masked is in poor taste.
The mask is a symbol of a luchador’s personality. A mask can even live on without a luchador, as in the case of the widely-recognizable masks of Blue Demon and El Santo. But most importantly, the mask is a rite of passage that shows that you have trained long enough in that specific style of wrestling to have debuted as a luchador (Though they are similar sports, there are a number of very important stylistic distinctions between lucha libre and American pro wrestling that make the differences between luchador and American pro wrestler very significant). Not even lucha students are supposed to wear their mask in public until after their official debut. It is a form of quality-assurance dictated by experienced coaches, and to me, wearing a mask without the training or skill to back it up reeks of false advertising.
It was not entirely my choice to wrestle enmascarada. There came a point in my training where my maestro (coach) asked me, point blank, to come up with a name and send a design to our mask-maker in Mexico. He had decided I was ready to wrestle and that I deserved to wrestle with a mask. While it was in some respects simply the logical progression of my training, my masking was also a weighty decision on his part because I was being invited to participate in that culture in a very particular way. To the best of my knowledge, I was the first fully genetically non-Mexican at Lucha Libre Volcánica to earn the privilege of a mask (though not the first person who was not raised in the Mexican culture).
I am extremely honored to wrestle with a mask, and it is a responsibility I do not take lightly. The mask makes me a public figure, an ambassador of the sport, and it is recognizable even when I myself fade into the crowd. That feeling of pride and respect for the culture is the main reason I strive to perform at the highest level possible, and why I take particular offense when wrestlers who are not trained or debuted as luchadores don a lucha-style mask.
(1) Note: Lucha libre is not exclusive to Mexico, or to Spanish-speakers. However, they are definitely in the majority.
(2) Not every luchador wrestles with a mask, but they are also in the majority. Likewise, there are some non-luchadores who wrestle with a mask, but they don’t often claim to be luchadores.